One type of question we see on social media and photography forums again and again is the “do you prefer this or this?” or “which image do you like best out of this set?” These sorts of questions are completely meaningless as they disregard the most important part of the decision: the photographer’s intention. What were you trying to achieve?
Of all the skills we can learn in photography, understanding why it is we make images in the way that we do is probably the most important. By understanding your intentions, you will be able to deliberately make the choices that lead to your style of imagery. You will certainly not learn this by crowd-sourcing value judgements on your photographs.
Asking a crowd of people you don’t know randomly what they think of two images is completely meaningless unless you're looking to ascertain a general idea of whether your photograph will be popular or not. It’s like asking if they prefer steak or fried chicken when trying to decide what you should have for dinner. Their answers will inform you of their preferences without any regard for context or the intention of the question.
For the rest of this article, we’ll consider the photographer’s role in making images and also in deciding which image best expresses their intent. We’ll look at what goes into the process of making an image and what we need to do in order to evaluate it. We’ll look specifically at your intent, whether you achieved that, and what the next steps are. Open up a couple of your photographs and follow along.
While you were making your photographs, what were you trying to achieve? This is possibly the most important question you can consider when evaluating your images or making your edit. If you were aiming for an expression of bliss, did you manage to capture that? Perhaps your goal was a perfectly balanced geometric composition. Did you achieve it?
Considering your goals gives you a place to start in evaluating and judging your images. By looking at images in terms of intent and expression, you give yourself a way to evaluate them for what they tried to achieve. An image may not be technically perfect but may express exactly what you were hoping to show the viewer. If you dismiss an image based on one aspect of its realization when that doesn’t affect what you were intending to achieve, you may be throwing away a perfectly usable image.
Knowing your intent also gives you a way to consider which parts of your execution failed. Perhaps you love the expression on your subject’s face, but feel the light doesn’t compliment it. Maybe you choose a depth of field that was too shallow to express any relationship between your subject and the scene. Consider what you were trying to say before judging any aspect of your image.
Break Down Your Intent
Your intent may have any number of factors involved. Perhaps you wanted to show a certain angle of your subject. Maybe you were looking to capture the relationship between two subjects. These and many other considerations can be a part of your intent.
For some genres of photography and some photographers, technical execution is extremely important. Consider, for a moment, architectural photography. There are two basic ways you can approach this. The first would be as a document of the architect’s work and the second would be using that work in a creative composition of your own. These two have extremely different requirements.
The document of another artists work has several technical requirements that you will need to get right. Limiting distortion is important, for example. As are rendering the right amount of detail and working in a light that flatters the building. On the other hand, a creative image of the building for another purpose could go in any direction you like and thus would be subject to whatever constraints you place on your creative expression.
The same applies to all kinds of images. Other technical variables might be sharpness, exposure, lighting ratio, color fidelity, or any other technical quality that is important to the images at hand. Be aware of what your goals for the technical execution were and if you achieved those.
Another part of your intent may be the emotion or mood you’re trying to express. This does not necessarily have to apply to human emotion in portraits. With a seascape, you might be trying to express calmness or chaos. With a cityscape, you might be aiming to express your love for the marvel of human development or complete disgust at the blight on the landscape that it is. These are all valid and should be considered when evaluating your images.
Emotion and mood can actually be extremely difficult to evaluate. You, as the artist, know what you’re trying to say and can be blinded by that. One way to work with this blindness is to give some time between making and reviewing the photographs. Leave them on your hard drive for some time and give your emotions time to cool down before attempting to evaluate them. This way, you’ll be looking at the images with a clearer head.
Now You’re Ready to Ask for Advice
Now that you’ve taken a look and considered the factors that are important to you and evaluated your images, you can effectively seek the advice of others. Since you’re well informed about your own intentions and have considered them yourself, you can ask the right questions to get the feedback you need.
Be sure that you clarify your intention with the people you ask for advice. Let them know what you were trying to express and ask them which, if any, of the images express that best to them. That way, they will understand your needs and be able to give you advice that is relevant to you.
By following this process, we're now able to ask a more useful set of questions than when we started this article. Does this depth of field or this depth of field better express this idea to you? Does this moment or this moment make you feel happier? Do you feel that removing the color from this image takes away from its impact? These are questions that can give you valuable information to improve your craft. So, spend some time considering how to get the feedback you really need to improve your photography.
How do you go about seeking advice or critique with regards to your photography? We all love a bit of flattery now and again, but there can be other types of feedback that will help us to grow. Let us know in the comments below!